The Mark of a Narcissist

This tweet is one of the many signs that Donald Trump is a narcissist.  It shows he is incapable of seeing himself as part of a presidential history that is larger than himself. Not all presidents have been perfect, and others have certainly shown narcissistic tendencies, but many of them have been humbled in some way by the office.  Our best presidents thought about their four or eight years in power with historical continuity in mind.  This required them to respect the integrity of the office and the unofficial moral qualifications that come with it.

Trump spits in the face of such historical continuity.  This is progressive thinking at its worst.  It makes me think of Tocqueville in Democracy of America

Not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.

Michael Gerson put it his way: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.”

And let’s not forget Sam Wineburg in the context of historical thinking:

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.–Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

If Wineburg is correct, the antidote to narcissism is “mature historical understanding.” Let’s keep working.

What Would Tocqueville Say About Trump?

TocquevilleCheck out John Wilsey’s essay at The American Conservative comparing Donald Trump’s politics with the political thought of Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America.

Here is a taste:

Still, if Tocqueville was right about manners and their significance to American democratic institutions—and full disclosure, I believe that he is—then we are surely living in interesting times. The phenomenon of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump becomes an interesting case study in Tocqueville’s writings about manners. It is hard to be neutral about Trump. Ezra Klein recently expressed what many worried Republicans are thinking—namely, Trump is fun, but are we really prepared to have him represent the United States to the world? And what attracts voters to Trump? Seventy-eight percent of Republican primary voters in South Carolina liked him because he “tells it like it is.”

And how does he do that? He insults. He uses profanity. He bombasts. If you’re really interested, check out this catalogue of Trump insults on the 2016 presidential campaign trail. (Spare yourself. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.) This kind of behavior reveals what he thinks about human dignity. Forget about his pro-choice stances, if you can. Forget about his racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant policy positions, if you must. Just note what comes out of his mouth.

Trump’s statements shock many. I hear a lot of my evangelical Christian friends express their befuddlement, asking things like “Who is supporting him?” and “I don’t know anyone who backs him.” Clearly, a lot of people are. And instead of being shocked by Trump and his buffoonery, we should be shocked at ourselves.

After all, Trump is not an anomaly. He is a reflection of American culture. He is the image of the coarseness and incivility in American culture that has grown more and more pronounced until today, when it is acceptable for a major presidential candidate to refer to one of his opponents as a p***y. He ought to have his mouth washed out with soap. (That was my grandmother’s form of waterboarding.)

When we see Trump, we see ourselves. Trump is a credible candidate today, and he would not have been credible in the past. Trump has always been a boor, but American manners have not always been boorish enough for Trump to find a place in public discourse. Now they are. We have no one to blame but ourselves, we who have become narcissistic, uncivil, civically lazy, obdurate, gullible, uncouth, easily offended, and in the prophet Jeremiah’s words, we are so implacable, we do “not know how to blush.”

Read the entire essay here.

Tocqueville’s Take on the Separation of Church and State

Alan S. Kahan teaches British Civilization at the Université de Versailles/St. Quentin-en-Yvelines, France. He is also the author of Tocqueville, Democracy, & Religion: Checks and Balances for Democratic Souls

Over at the Oxford University Press blog, Kahan provides a Tocquevillian approach to the separation of church and state in the United States.  Here is a taste:

Tocqueville firmly believed that religion properly understood was freedom’s friend, not its enemy, and that democracy was the friend of God, not God’s enemy. Religion and the state should be like two adjoining houses which share a common wall, but have separate entrances. In the hallway of religion, once one enters, one hangs up one’s right of individual inquiry and decision and accepts divine authority. In the hallway of politics, one hangs up one’s religious dogmas and accepts the decision of the majority while retaining one’s freedom of thought and action. The wall between religion and the state should be thin, however, so that the noise in one can be heard clearly in the other. Indeed, the moral expression of religion ought to be heard so clearly in the house of politics as to be able, if need be, to wake up its occupants in the middle of the night, and religion should never be allowed to be so indifferent to society as to be able to ignore a catastrophe happening next door. You hear a lot of things through a thin partition. Politics and religion must recognize their inevitably intimate relationship. – 

History News Network: "South Dakota: Please Reconsider Your Decision to Dump Early American History"

Happy to report that History News Network is running my piece on South Dakota’s decision to stop teaching early American history in public schools:

In case you haven’t heard, the South Dakota Board of Education has dumped early American history from its K-12 curriculum.
When I heard about this decision, a quote from one of the great nineteenth-century observers of American life came to mind.  During the 1830s a French aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville traveled throughout the United States and studied the character of American society.  His observations would later be published in his Democracy in America—a work that is just as important to our national identity today as it was when it first appeared in 1835. 
In Chapter Two of Democracy in America Tocqueville laments the way that individualism—an idea at the heart of American democracy—destroys a citizen’s appreciation of the past. 
“Among democratic nations,” he wrote, “new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; those who will come after, no one has any idea; the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself.” 
Tocqueville understood that sometimes in a democratic society we become so addicted to the present that we forget where we came from.  We lose touch with history—the subject that provides us with our identity as Americans. 
Now that early American history is no longer part of the curriculum, it is very unlikely that a student in the public schools of South Dakota will ever read Tocqueville’s quote. 
The decision of the South Dakota Board of Education seems to be based on the idea that early American history is not important because it occurred so long ago and has no relevance for the present.  The Board of Education seems to think that history is merely the memorization of dates, timelines, and names. 
The decision is also based on a very thin view of citizenship.  How can students understand what it means to be a citizen of South Dakota or the United States without understanding that everything that they encounter in the present is rooted in a historic context?  
History is more than memorization.  It teaches students that current events are contingent on the events that came before them.  History teaches us the root causes of the things that happen in our world today.  
When students learn about context, contingency, and causation they develop a deeper—more robust—understanding of the world around them.


Read the rest here.

Wilfred McClay: The Toquevillean Moment for Higher Education

In a recent essay in The Wilson Quarterly, social critic Wilfred McClay uses Alexis de Tocqueville and Democracy in America to make sense of the current changes in American higher education.

First, McClay lays out the challenges faced by higher education today:

To say that we are living through a time of momentous change, and now stand on the threshold of a future we could barely have imagined a quarter-century ago, may seem merely to restate the blazingly obvious. But it is no less true, and no less worrisome, for being so. Uncertainties about the fiscal soundness of sovereign governments and the stability of basic political, economic, and financial institutions, not to mention the fundamental solvency of countless American families, are rippling through all facets of the nation’s life. Those of us in the field of higher education find these new circumstances particularly unsettling. Our once-buffered corner of the world seems to have lost control of its boundaries and lost sight of its proper ends, and stands accused of having become at once unaffordable and irrelevant except as a credential mill for the many and a certification of social rank for the few. And despite all the wonderful possibilities that beckon from the sunlit uplands of technological progress, the digital revolution that is upon us threatens not only to disrupt the economic model of higher education but to undermine the very qualities of mind that are the university’s reason for being. There is a sense that events and processes are careening out of control, and that the great bubble that has so far contained us is now in the process of bursting.

Then he introduces us to Tocqueville’s understanding of liberal education:

But more than anything else, Tocqueville praised Americans for their embrace of the principle of self-interest rightly understood. It was a foregone conclusion, in his view, that self-interest had replaced virtue as the chief force driving human action. To tell an American to do virtuous things for virtue’s sake, or at the authoritative direction of priests, prelates, or princes, was futile. But the same request would readily be granted if real benefits could be shown to flow from it. The challenge of moral philosophy in such an environment was to demonstrate how “private interest and public interest meet and amalgamate,” and how one’s devotion to the general good could also promote one’s personal advantage. Belief in that conjunction—that one could do well by doing good—was exactly what was meant by the “right understanding” of self-interest.

Hence, it was imperative to educate democratic citizens in this understanding, to teach them how to reason their own way to acceptance of the greater good. The American example made Tocqueville hopeful that the modern principle of self-interest could be so channeled, hedged about, habituated, and clothed as to produce public order and public good, even in the absence of “aristocratic” sources of authority. But it would not happen of its own accord.

“Enlighten them, therefore, at any price.” Or, as another translation expresses it, “Educate them, then.” Whatever else we may believe about the applicability of Tocqueville’s ideas to the present day, we can be in no doubt that he was right in his emphasis upon education. But not just any kind of education.  He was talking about what we call liberal education, in the strictest sense of the term, an education that makes men and women capable of the exercise of liberty, and equips them for the task of rational self-governance. And the future of that ideal of education is today very much in doubt.

And finally, he uses Tocqueville to defend the traditional liberal arts:

Wilfred McClay

So we must be Tocquevillean. That means we should not be too quick to discard an older model of what higher education is about, a model that the conventional four-year residential liberal-arts college, whatever its failures and its exorbitant costs, has been preeminent in championing. And that is the model of a physical community built around a great shared enterprise: the serious and careful reading and discussion of classic literary, philosophical, historical, and scientific texts. 

What we may need, however, is to be more rigorous in thinking through what we want from such a model of education, and what we can readily dispense with. Perhaps we do not need college to be what it all too often has become: an extended Wanderjahre of post-adolescent entertainment and experimentation, played out in the soft, protected environment of idyllic, leafy campuses, less a rite du passage than a retreat to a very expensive place where one can defer the responsibilities of adult life. 

At the very least, such an education ought to help us resist the uncritical embrace of technological innovation, and equip us to challenge it constructively and thoughtfully—and selectively. There is, for example, no product of formal education more important than the cultivation of reflection, of solitary concentration, and of sustained, patient, and disciplined attention—habits that an overwired and hyperconnected way of life is making more and more difficult to put into practice. If we find it increasingly difficult to compose our fragmented and disjointed browsings into coherent accounts, let alone larger and deeper structures of meaning, that fact represents a colossal failure of our educations to give us the tools we need to make sense of our lives. Colleges and universities should be the last institutions to succumb to this tendency. They should resist it with all their might, because that is precisely what they are there for.

Read the entire piece.

What Do Our Bathrooms Tell Us About Amercian Culture?

Philip Bess teaches in the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture and is the author of Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the SacredCrisis Magazine is running an excerpt from this book in which Bess reflects on multi-bathroom homes, suburbia, Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia, and Tocqueville.  Here is just a small taste:

Bigger and more luxurious bedrooms and bathrooms seem to me just one physical manifestation of that shrinkage of the public realm happening reciprocally and in tandem with America’s true growth industry, the care and tending of the autonomous self. Like the decline of the street and square as active public spaces—and the demise of the alley, the ubiquity of the driveway, the transformation of the garage door into the front door, the demise of uninterrupted curbs on residential blocks, the relocation of domestic life to yards and family rooms at the rear of the house, and the creation of complex suburban roofs apparently intended to simulate small villages—the growing number and importance of domestic bathrooms and bedroom suites indicates yet another way we materialize in our built environment our culture’s turn from the civic to the private.

This turn to the private would have dismayed but not surprised Alexis de Tocqueville. Indeed, Tocqueville recognized individualism as a peculiarly democratic proclivity. His 1840 characterization of individualism (“a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to . . . draw apart with his family and friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself”) goes far toward describing a social reality that has taken physical form in the American suburb.

Himmelfarb on the Civil Society

Gertrude Himmelfarb (echoing Charles Murray’s conclusion in Coming Apart) believes that we need a revival of civil society in America.  Such a new “civic Great Awakening” (Murray’s phrase), she argues, must draw upon the views of older defenders of civil society such as Locke, Tocqueville, and Burke who wrote about the links between civil society and political association.

Here is a taste:

Today, in our anxiety about the excesses of individualism and statism, we may find ourselves looking upon civil society not merely as a corrective to those excesses but as a be-all and end-all, a sanctuary in itself, a sufficient habitat for the human spirit. What our forefathers impress upon us is a more elevated as well as a more dynamic view of civil society, one that exists in a continuum with “political society”—that is, government—just as “civil associations” do with “political associations,” “private affections” with “public affections,” and, most memorably, the “little platoon” with “a love to our country and to mankind.” This is civil society properly understood (as Tocqueville would say), a civil society rooted in all that is most natural and admirable—family, community, religion—and that is also intimately related to those other natural and admirable aspects of life, country and humanity.

American Aristocrats: Indians and Southerners

Peter Lawler has a very thoughtful and provocative piece about Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument that the true aristocrats in antebellum America were southern slaveholders and Indians. Here is a taste:

The last chapter of volume 1 of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville is about the then-present and probable future of the three races that inhabited our country at the time. Tocqueville identifies them by color—the reds, the whites, and the blacks. That is, the Indians or Native Americans, the Europeans and the descendents of Europeans who emigrated to America, and the descendents of the Africans who were brought to America as slaves (and who, of course, mostly remained slaves themselves).

It turns out that each race—each color—represents the three ways of life that existed in America, and, from a certain view, the three ways of life possible for human beings. Americans, it turns out, are both more and less than middle-class democrats.

The blacks—the African Americans—are slaves. They aren’t free and are compelled to work. That is, work for others.

The whites—the dominant class in America—are members of the middle class. They’re free, and that’s the good news. The bad news is that they have to work. They have to work for themselves in order to survive and prosper. They’re middle class because they’re free like aristocrats to work like slaves. They think of themselves as beings with interests; nobody is above or below being self-interested or responsible for one’s own material needs.

The reds—the Indians or indigenous Americans—Tocqueville describes as aristocrats. For us, it’s not so obvious why Indians belong in the same category as the hereditary aristocrats of Europe. But Tocqueville explains that the Indians—really, the Indian men—pride themselves in not devoting themselves slavishly to manual labor, to say, agriculture. They, like the European aristocrats, think of themselves as free from work so that they might pursue nobler activities—hunting, fighting, and giving speeches about hunting and fighting. And so they regard the way of life of the middle-class as unendurable drudgery. They often pride themselves in believing that they would rather die then surrender their way of life. And they really did display plenty of evidence that their lives were defined more by courage and honor than by fear. Because they knew how to die well, they thought they also knew how to live well.

At a certain point in this chapter, Tocqueville’s analysis takes an unexpected turn. He says that the southern slave owners—the ruling class in the South—are also aristocrats. That is, they are far more like the Indians than like their fellow Europeans in the North. They, like the Indians, prided themselves as being free from the drudgery of manual labor so that they’re free for nobler activities, activities in which they could display their distinctively human virtues—courage above all. Like the Indians, they were all about hunting and fighting and giving speeches about hunting and fighting—which they called politics. They thought, like the Indian, that merely being concerned with one’s interests is slavish.

Read rest here.